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  • Writer's pictureVictoria Regina

Queen Victoria & The Telephone

Queen Victoria being shown how to use the telephone for the first time Source: Islandecho

In December 1877, Lyon Playfair sent a letter to Alexander Graham Bell ‘suggesting that Her Majesty might like to see your telephone in operation’ and how he thought ‘that this would be regarded by you as the inventor in the light of a compliment and that in England it would promote the success of your undertakings’. Bell was understandably overjoyed by this and soon an audience had been arranged for 14th January.

On the evening of the 14th January 1878 Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the Telephone to Queen Victoria, Princess Beatrice, Prince Arthur and various courtiers. The demonstration lasted from 9:30pm to exactly midnight. Before putting the telephone into use, Bell explained the origin and development of his invention

Victoria records in her journal that evening -

'After dinner we went to the Council Room and saw the Telephone. A Professor Bell explained the whole process, which is most extraordinary. It had been put in communication with Osborne Cottage, and we talked with Sir Thomas and Mary Biddulph, also heard some singing quite plainly. But it is rather faint, and one must hold the tube close to one's ear. The man, who was very pompous, kept calling Arthur Lord Connaught! which amused us very much.''

Victoria referred in her diary to her seventh son Prince Arthur being addressed as Lord Connaught when in fact he was The Duke of Connaught. Thankfully Victoria found the mistake of Mr Bell's companion rather amusing. The singing she mentioned was produced by a lady called Kate Field who also played Kathleen Mavourneen, an Irish ballad on the piano and then sang Comin’ thro’ the Rye and The Cuckoo Song. Later on, Queen Victoria listened to calls from Cowes, Southampton where a bugle retreat was sounded and finally London, from where she heard God Save the Queen played on an organ.

Bell telephone and terminal panel used by Queen Victoria at Osborne House ©

While various singers and musicians had been assembled in Cowes and London and were waiting, the line to Cowes went dead. When, however, a singer got through on the Osborne Cottage line but The Queen happened at that moment to be looking away, Mr Bell touched her hand to direct her attention to the telephone. This was an extreme disregard of etiquette, no one at court would ever dream of touching The Queen; although this mistake passed without her Majesty's personal comment but the story soon swept through the court.

Like with all new technology, there were of course some technical faults. When calling Southampton for the second time, the line unexpectedly failed (certainly not what you want when trying to impress the Queen!). However, Victoria was so enthralled by what she was witnessing that she waited up until it was eventually fixed at midnight. Unfortunately, by the time it was fixed, the singers had given up waiting and had gone home but Preece was on hand to save the day. Not wanting to disappoint his Queen, the gentleman decided to hum her the national anthem. Queen Victoria wasn’t impressed by his decision and said ‘It is the National Anthem, but it is very badly played!’

The following day, another demonstration was held in the Council Room, connecting the Council Room to Osborne Cottage and Cowes. Although the Queen wasn’t in attendance, Prince Arthur and Princess Beatrice, along with other members of the household, filled the small room to witness the experiment again. Thankfully this time all went smoothly and numerous encores were played.

Luckily the technical glitch hadn’t put the Queen off, she requested to purchase two telephones, she instructed the then Keeper of the Privy Purse, Major Biddulph to Inquire if she could purchase the two telephones Mr Bell left at the Palace from his visit.

The next day Mr Bell replied -

'Dear Sir, I feel highly honoured by the gratification expressed by Her Majesty, and by her desire to possess a set of Telephones. The instruments at present in Osborne are merely those supplied for ordinary commercial purposes, and it will give me much pleasure to be permitted to offer the Queen a set of Telephones to be made expressly for Her Majesty’s use.

I am, dear Sir,

Yours very respectfully,

Alexander Graham Bell.'

© Telegraph Media Group Limited 2024

Bell stuck by his word and sent the Queen two telephones with receivers made out of ivory and gold, free of charge. Somehow, those two letters between Biddulph and Bell were leaked to both local and national newspapers. From there, the telephone was being installed all around Britain. By 1897, all of Queen Victorias residences were connected to a telephone line. It’s said that Victoria would often personally use her telephone to contact her family. Princess Alexandra, wife of Prince Albert Edward, once complained how the telephone connecting her at Abergeldie to Balmoral Castle never stopped ringing when the Queen was in residence.

Although Victoria was impressed by the telephone

she never allowed one to be fitted in her private appartements. Although she showed no interest in having a personal one installed she did use the telephone when needed - she records in her diary in 1886 that whilst staying at Newsham House her and Beatrice listened through a telephone to hear speeches given at a banquet. Victoria notes she heard her son Arthur's speech 'quite distinctively' and that the cheering had a 'very curious effect'

Newspaper article reporting the event

Victoria and Albert were avid patrons of technology and it's advancements but Victoria never could quite grasp getting accumulated to a telephone so she much preferred to use telegrams even into the late 1890's.

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